The Real Cost of Christmas

By Sue Anderson, Head of Media, StepChange

Christmas comes but once a year — yet the debt the typical UK adult expects to build up to pay for 2019’s looks set to take an average of over seven and a half months to clear, according to new consumer research undertaken for StepChange, as part of our “Real Cost of Christmas” campaign.

When you work for a debt advice charity you begin to see the consumerist side of Christmas through different eyes.

All those “heartwarming” Christmas TV adverts? Their real objective is to try to get you to believe the fairy tale that the “perfect Christmas” is out there waiting for you… with the unspoken subtext that you just need to spend money to achieve it.

And as for those “helpful” adverts from all the glossy brands reminding you that you can now “slice it” or spread your payments to pay for those Christmas goodies? Make no mistake, this isn’t for your convenience, it’s because offering these kinds of facilities enables retailers to vastly increase their sales, as people feel able to buy more than they otherwise would.

A third of under-35s surveyed said they expected to use buy now, pay later schemes this Christmas. So that’s a very Merry Christmas to the retailers, then.

No-one likes a Christmas Scrooge. We’re hardwired and socially conditioned to believe that generosity is a virtue, and that demonstrative acts of giving are an essential part of being a good person.

So it’s easy to see why the pressure to spend at Christmas, even if it isn’t truly affordable, is truly difficult to resist. Exacerbating this, the StepChange research also reveals how the role of social media shows its ugly side — for many, the positive side of sharing the good times is outweighed by a sense of personal inadequacy about not “matching up” to the airbrushed perfection of other people’s Insta Christmas.

So while the Christmas message that StepChange, MoneySavingExpert, numerous financial bloggers and journalists are promoting — don’t get into debt for the sake of Christmas — is absolutely right, we also need to recognise that there are countervailing and seductive forces trying to encourage completely the opposite sets of behaviour in people.

As we always emphasise, our role is to help, not to judge. And for every bah-humbug who harrumphs that people should “neither a borrower nor a lender be”, there’s a parent just wanting to give their child Christmas presents, or a student taking the expensive rail fare to get home for Christmas, or a loved-up couple influenced into believing that the key to true love lies in the gift.

So what are we most hoping for in our own StepChange Christmas stocking? Something more precious than money can buy. An ever kinder, more empathetic, more understanding approach from public policy to the situation facing people in debt — now that would be a Christmas present worth having. And we wouldn’t object to a magic twinkle of regulatory fairy lights over that, to supplement the new rules about helping people in “persistent debt” with a good dose of helping more people to avoid building up unmanageable debt in the first place.

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We provide free, impartial debt advice and solutions to anyone struggling with debt problems in the UK.

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